Days 80-82/ May 17th-19th – New Florence, MO to Columbia, MO: A dog’s life

The sign next to the interstate as we set out at six this morning read ‘Don’t Miss! Denny’s in Kingdom City – Exit 148, 27 Miles’.  It was, it must be admitted, a trifle lowering to have it spelled out with such pitiless clarity how long would be the day’s distances and how scant the rewards.  In one sense, at least, the sign was a helpful guide: when we eventually arrived in Kingdom City eleven hours later, it was undeniable that Denny’s was, indeed, one of its chief attractions.

It was little more than an interstate service station, with a population of 121, which seems to me to stretch the definition of ‘city’ to breaking point.  The ‘Kingdom’ in its name refers to the ‘Kingdom of Callaway’, a nickname that Callaway County gave itself – and still uses today – after facing down a small Union army in a minor Civil War skirmish.  Presumably the army decided that the area didn’t merit even the most minuscule expenditure of life, but this chippy, don’t-mess-with-Texas type of self-aggrandisement was another reminder that there’s quite a lot of the South about Missouri.

Baptist Methodist sign in Mineola, Missouri

Amputation or gangrene?

The towns along I-70 engage in desperate attempts to lure the bored motorist off the road.  Denny’s was not Kingdom City’s only trump card.  For a little over fifty miles we had passed, with metronomic regularity, signs for ‘Nostalgiaville USA’, which turned out to be a dispiriting little shed stuffed with tin Coke signs and Betty Boop memorabilia, while another billboard just outside town pleaded ‘Ozarkland: Worth Stopping For!’  It wasn’t.  New Florence, we were equally unsurprised to discover, was light on Tuscan palazzos and heavy on rain, corn and mud.

Ozarkland sign near Kingdom City, Missouri

A lie

Not that these long days across the middle of Missouri have been entirely without drama.  During the afternoon, along an anonymous stretch of the service road that we’ve been content to follow, on and off, for the last hundred miles, there appeared a yellow diamond ‘Dead End’ sign.  Google Maps was adamant that this was our only walkable route, so we carried on.  The road turned first to dirt, then to grass, bent away from the interstate, and then ended abruptly at a metal gate bristling with ‘No Trespassing’ signs and blocking off a track that continued into the woods.  After the twenty minutes or so that it usually requires to persuade Sally to break any kind of law (my winning argument was that we could always claim that we thought British right-to-roam laws applied in Missouri), we vaulted the gate.  The track duly petered out altogether half a mile later at the edge of a raging, swollen river.

Sally walking on I-70 service road in Missouri

I don't think we're on I-70 any more

We were faced with an unpleasant choice: backtrack to the last interstate bridge – a 10-mile detour – or hack our way through damp fields and woods back to I-70 and take it across the river.  We chose to hack, and ten minutes later found ourselves at edge of an interstate busy with screaming trucks, waiting for a chance to cross.  After an interminable wait for a gap in the traffic we dashed across both carriageways to the other side, and then, after pausing to finalise our wills, scuttled for several hundred yards along the shoulder and over the offending Auxvasse Creek like a pair of scalded cockroaches, to the safety of the service road on the other side.

University of Missouri turkey research center

A waste of time: everyone knows turkeys are very poor students

Along this final stretch of road into Kingdom City was a steady sprinkling of rain-soaked raccoon corpses, their mouths open in final rictus screams, like harbingers warning the weary traveller to hurry past.  We’ve encountered more animals than people over the last couple of days – and not all of them dead.  In Mineola, a hamlet in a rare patch of forest, we were joined as we waited out the rain under the awning of an abandoned Harley repair shop by a tiny black hummingbird, which whirred against the red ‘Closing Down’ signs plastered to the windows in a fruitless search for pollen.  The village of Stephens appeared to have been visited by some terrible recent catastrophe.  Two trailer homes near the centre of town had had their sides torn off, as if by a passing Tyrannosaur, revealing foam insulation and tiny kitchens inside, and a house further down the road had been levelled by a falling tree, which apart from some trimming of its branches appeared simply to have been left there as a sort of art installation.  There was not a sign of human habitation; the town seemed instead to have been taken over by dogs.

We were greeted at the entrance to town by an elderly sheepdog, which left a mass of muddy paw-prints all over Sally, nearly crushed itself under the tyres of a passing car, and then shot into a field of curious horses which scattered in panic.  As we paused to rest at the edge of a garden, a border collie approached us, with a Coke can in its mouth and intent in its eyes.  We threw the can, expecting the dog to chase it, only for it to streak across the grass and pluck the can out of the air before it had even landed.  By the time we moved on again, the can was a mass of mangled, saliva-soaked metal.

Can-catching dog in Stephens, Missouri

Surely a spell in goal for England beckons

We were escorted out of town by a Labrador, which despite our attempts to shoo it away, and several near-death experiences with passing cars, followed us for three miles, pausing only to chase a cat and to shake a fieldmouse to death in front of us.  Only when we passed a field of cows did it refuse to come any further, and sat, trembling with fear, on its haunches in the road.  It was exasperating, not least because we were hooted at by angry drivers who assumed the dog was ours, but we couldn’t blame the creature: like us, it just wanted to leave these little Missouri towns far behind.

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